Call it what you want — information overload, information fatigue, information obesity. The World Wide Web has simply created too much information to digest.
This issue has long been recognized by Wright State University, which has a robust Information Literacy program to help students navigate the information universe and develop skills to effectively and efficiently mine and use that information.
And recognition of the importance of information literacy has been spreading across the country. President Obama declared October National Information Literacy Month in 2009. Most recently, Gov. John Kasich proclaimed this October as Information Literacy Month in Ohio, making it the 21st state to do so.
The governor’s proclamation says the ability to work confidently with digital information and understand its power is becoming essential in holding high-level jobs and competing successfully in the global economy.
“The landscape of information is very different than it was 10 years ago,” said Mandy Shannon, coordinator of library instruction and assessment at Wright State University Libraries. “Students have access to more information than you or I ever did as undergraduates, but that brings with it a whole host of new problems. It’s hard to manage that much information and to make well-informed decisions without knowing how to filter and process it.”
This past summer, Dunbar Library’s Reference and Instruction Department librarians developed learning outcomes — or objectives — for information literacy. They include skills in determining the information needed, finding it, evaluating it, using it, presenting it and reflecting critically on it.
“We’ve all gotten to the point where you want to throw your device out the window because you’re not finding what you need,” said Shannon. “Information literacy helps you avoid those moments.”
Shannon said students often have an overinflated sense of confidence about their ability to navigate the information landscape. They can be very good, she said, at using the most popular search engines to get quick answers to “what” and “where” questions about a subject.
“But that’s not really what academic research, what professional research, is about,” she said. “That’s where you get into the questions of ‘why’ and ‘how.’”
The librarians offer a series of workshops called Research Toolkit that teach how to use search engines more surgically and effectively by filtering the information. The workshops also introduce students to scholarly databases, teach them how to read a scholarly article and how to evaluate information sources.
In addition, the librarians partner with faculty in various disciplines to teach students information literacy skills. The dozen different subject librarians cover every program in every college through instruction in classes. Students are also encouraged to work with the librarians one-on-one.
Students are taught when to refer to books, when to refer to online information, when to refer to scholarly databases. They are taught to corroborate and to evaluate the sources’ authority, agenda and bias.
“You need to do it effectively and efficiently so that you’re not relying on information from Angry Blogger Joe in his basement,” said Shannon.
There is also a focus on reflection and critical thinking about how information is produced, at what point, by whom and for what purpose. And students are taught to understand the information cycle — the kind of information it is, when it becomes available and the target audience.
A study conducted by Shannon and her husband, Vaughn Shannon, associate professor of political science, indicated that incorporating information literacy in classes such as political science resulted in papers that used more sources, better sources and used the sources better to advance the students’ arguments. Results of the study are to be published in the Journal of Political Science Education.
“We see information literacy instruction making real differences in student work,” said Shannon.
She said an increasing number of studies also show that information literacy improves graduation and retention rates. And a study by Project Information Literacy, based at the University of Washington, showed that nearly every job filled by college graduates requires information skills.
“So this is really critical outside of school and professionally,” said Shannon. “It’s increasingly important because we’re deluged with so much information. We are bombarded with information literally from the minute we wake up to the minute we go to bed.”
Shannon said information literacy is also important for Americans as citizens. For example, she said, they need the skill in order to fact-check assertions by political candidates for themselves.
The Research Toolkit workshops are free and open to all students, including graduate students. Each of the eight different workshops lasts under an hour, is built into the same time blocks as classes and offered on differing days and times.
Students can attend as many of the workshops as they like. Each workshop stands on its own — it is not necessary to attend the workshops in any sequential order and there is no requirement to attend one workshop before attending another.